To the last "Survivor"!

By Joyce Millman

By Salon Staff
Published August 25, 2000 7:19PM (EDT)

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Joyce Millman's enthusiastic piece about the last "Survivor" episode highlighted for me the most troubling aspect of the "Survivor" phenomenon. The show and the discussions about it (whether in the media, around the water cooler or at the dinner table) focus on the show's wonderfully extravagant back-stabbing, scheming and deception as if these were inevitable, inherent and necessary methods of surviving in business and in social groups of all kinds and stripes. The show, of course, is set up to create and intensify such traits and activities, but what disturbs me is the fact that "Survivor," and the culture that has celebrated it all summer, insist that if you're intelligent, you'll know that obeying "the law of the jungle" is the only way to succeed or to accomplish your goals. Millman buys into this entirely when she mocks the naiveté of people like Jenna and Dr. Sean for laboring under the delusion "that this was a collective effort," and when she gleefully proclaims her "news flash" that "nice guys still finish last."

But is that really true? Maybe it's true on a TV show where issues of "survival" have nothing to do with feeding and clothing yourself and finding shelter, where in fact cooperation and collective effort would be critical. As we can see from the last few episodes, all the castaways needed to do was lie around in their hammocks all day and eat the rice the show's producers provided in order to "survive" physically -- no group effort is required. Since the real key to survival was to look out for yourself and avoid getting voted off the island, naturally the qualities that make you win are talents for intrigue, duplicity, creating discord among the other contestants and other unpleasant, antisocial activities.

I'm not condemning the show itself -- I'd be the first to admit that the show would be completely boring if it were based on harmonious cooperation. One of the reasons why "Big Brother" is so tedious is that is a love-fest, whereas the real interest of "reality" shows lies not friendship, affection or even sex, but in conflict and disruptive personalities. What I criticize is the conclusion drawn by Millman and others that "Survivor" is "real" enough that we can draw conclusions about human nature and how social groups operate, and about what does and does not succeed out here in the real world. "Survivor" is just as artificial, manipulative and rigged as "Big Brother," and I doubt that either show provides any genuine insight into how people actually -- much less should -- behave. I fault Millman not for her fervent enjoyment of the nastiness of the show, but for her lack of insight and her unreflective acceptance of the cultural cliches that the show extols.

-- Gregg Farnham "

Nooooooo!" my husband yelled, as "Survivor's" host revealed the piece of paper that granted Richard (aka "the evil mastermind") the title of Ultimate Survivor and its award of $1 million. "This is terrible," he moaned. "It proves all along that evil wins and good loses. It represents what happens in life when the good guys are always the ones who get trounced."

At the time and for many hours afterward, I shared his sorrowful assessment of life's winners and losers, and struggled to accept living in a world in which nice guys finish last. However, after much moping and more than a little post-"Survivor" news-munching, I began to ponder the existence of a different truth. The morning after the finale aired, I watched the producers of "Survivor" gloat (rightfully so) about the success of their television show, how many people they got to watch, how they had kept the winner's identity secret and how expertly the show was cast.

How expertly the show was cast. Caught up in the "ordinary people plucked from their lives and placed on a show" image that attracts us to reality television, I had forgotten how much power the producers had in the show's outcome above and beyond the magic of creative editing. Surely they had an idea of the types of people that would make the show interesting and made calculated decisions about each individual chosen to represent their predetermined characters. Surely they were aware that intelligent castaways would determine that an alliance was necessary to reaching "the final four." Surely they knew that if the intelligent ones were also charming and kind, there would be little tension regarding which of the well-liked finalists would be chosen as the ultimate winner.

Thus, the selection of Richard Hatch was certainly a calculated move to insert tension (and thus increase ratings) into the show. Unlikable but undoubtedly the most intelligent, it was likely that Rich would scheme his way into the final four, at which time the possibility that a "bad guy" would win fame and fortune would keep the masses glued to our television sets, our fingers crossed, praying that evil would not prevail. To ensure the likelihood of Richard's success, the producers cast pitifully gullible and often slow-witted nice guys in the job of defeating the bad guy. The producers took a gamble on some serious character profiling and won. I'm impressed.

Now it's up to us to avoid making conclusions about society based on a television show. Those in desperate search of a moral to the "Survivor" story should not worry that it's "nice guys finish last." The rule is most certainly "smart guys (nice or mean) finish first." And the smartest in this case are the show's producers.

-- Jennifer Francis

Salon Staff

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